Defining Exegesis and Hermeneutics
Welcome to your Bible Interpretation Course – Lesson 1.2.
In this lesson we want to define two very important terms that have to do with interpreting the Bible: Exegesis and Hermeneutics.
Exegesis is the first part of the bible interpretation process.
Essentially, it is the grammatical, historical and cultural study of a passage of the Bible to try to determine its meaning to the original audience.
It is trying to answer the question: “What was God trying to say to the original hearers of a particular text?”
Too often we start from the perspective of what this texts means to me. It is a subjective way to read the Scriptures and has the potential to severely misinterpret a passage of Scripture.
Thus, it is critically important to engage in exegesis to try to the original message of the author.
In order to understand the word of God for our modern context, we must first understand the word of God for its ancient context. (I know there are different theories about this in a post-modern world, reader response, text centered vs. author centered, etc. But this is what I prefer. The good ole grammatical-historical method.)
An Example of Exegesis
In Leviticus 11, God instructs Israel not to eat the meat of certain animals, like those who chew the cud or have a divided hoof.
By carefully studying the historical and cultural context of the passage and of the book of Leviticus (i.e. by doing an exegetical study) we might ascertain that God was trying to institute a new code of conduct among his people of how they were to govern their lives in the Promised Land.
Among the many goals, three stand out in this text:
- Fidelity to God, which was demonstrated by avoiding the idolatrous practices of the surrounding nations (some of which showed up in the prohibitions we see in Leviticus).
- Identity of God’s people – This was achieved in everything from the clothes that Israel was allowed to wear to the food they were allowed to eat. Thus, even when they sat down for a meal, their eating code would remind them that they were a unique people, special unto God.
- A high moral standard, which would separate Israel from the practices of the other nations. This was best summed up by the phrase, “Be holy, because I am holy…” (Lev 11:44)
The prohibitions against eating certain kinds of food (as did the other prohibitions found in Exodus through Deuteronomy) all functioned to uphold these three values (among many others).
Thus, our exegetical study would help us determine what God’s word meant to its original audience in its original context.
From here, the jump to a modern application is much easier to make. We could simply ask: What are the things in our culture that must be avoided in order to remain faithful to God, to maintain our identity as Christians and to maintain a high moral standard?
Jumping directly from the text to a modern application (without exegesis) would require all of us to stop eating pork, which I would consider an incorrect “interpretation” of Leviticus 11 (and which would make me very sad since I love B-B-Q pork ribs).
Hermeneutics, properly speaking is the art and science of biblical interpretation and comes from the Greek term, hermeneuo, which means to interpret or to explain.
Hermeneutics essentially incorporates all of the tools and techniques that make up the process of biblical interpretation.
It not only includes exegesis (the study of the Bible to understand a passage in its ancient context), but also includes models for applying a biblical passage to a modern context.
As mentioned in our previous example, you cannot jump directly from the biblical passage to our modern context without doing an injustice to the Bible and without coming up with some strange doctrine or practice within the Christian church.
Where I minister and serve in Latin America, it wasn’t too long ago that women were prohibited from wearing pants, jewelry or makeup based on some passage in the Bible that had not properly passed through the Hermeneutics grid.
General hermeneutics are the rules of interpretation that govern any passage of the Bible. These would be applied first in trying to understand and interpret a particular text of Scripture.
Special hermeneutics are the rules of interpretation that govern specific genres of the Bible.
As you may or may not be aware, there are different categories of literature in the Bible.
The Psalms should be read and interpreted very differently from the Gospels. Revelation is apocalyptic literature which has different rules of interpretation than say the Book of Joshua which is mostly historical narrative.
Special hermeneutics also incorporates the study of literary figures such as metaphors, parables, proverbs, hyperbole, similes and other such devices which lend variety to biblical texts, but which also require certain interpretive nuances.
For example, when Jesus says we must forgive our brothers 70 x 7 times, he is using hyperbole.
You do not literally count up a certain number of divine mulligans for your brother! Rather, the essence is to have a limitless space for forgiveness in the same manner that God has for you.
The same would be said of Jesus’ command that if your hand causes you to sin, you should cut it off! Believe it or not, history is strewn with many one-handed Christians who took this hyperbolic command literally. Too bad they didn’t have good hermeneutics.
We will be coming back to these four terms throughout our series on Bible interpretation. Together, they form foundational ideas from which to launch a more in-depth study of the Bible.